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Freshwater Natural Aquariums

Nowadays more and more fish keepers are changing their views on the look that their aquariums should have and are shifting away from aquariums with strange and artificial ornamental décor such as castles and barrels, now they are after recreating natural looks in the aquarium using natural décor such as rocks, wood and natural substrates, to compliment these the aquariums have live plants added and arranged in such a fashion that a piece of nature is appearing in the room where the tank is housed. Creating this look may seem a bit daunting to some keepers especially if they are beginners to the hobby but it is not as difficult as it seems and making the correct choice of plants and décor will soon become second nature.

Planning is the key to success, you need a picture in your head of how the finished aquarium will look , putting this plan onto paper or on your computer will keep that image fresh and gives you a plan to work to as building up the look is performed over several key stages and these need to be stuck to to stand any chance of success. Look at the size of your aquarium, this can affect what you can actually fit inside it so smaller tanks may limit your choices slightly but several natural effects can still be achieved. Also take into account that looking after these aquariums does take some time so take this into account and work out how much spare time you will have for tank maintenance such as pruning plants, cleaning the décor if required and generally looking after any live stock that you have added.

Once you have a plan in your head its time to start collecting the material that you need for your project. The first place to start is the substrate in the tank, this will provide nutrients for your plants as fish waste breaks down or a nutrient filled compost may need to be added for a heavily planted tank, if you are designing a tank that does not contain any plants then research which substrate is found naturally where the fish species that you are adding are collected from. It is best to add the correct substrate at the start as cutting corners or rushing things will only create problems once the tank is up and running, undoing problems then can prove to be a major task.

There are several areas In the world that have their own natural look and aquariums that replicate these are known as biotopes, in these tanks the smallest details are followed even down to which fish are added and which species of plants are naturally found in these areas. Doing research will quickly help you with your final choice, some keepers prefer heavily planted tanks, some prefer a biotope that just consists of rocks and sand as in the case of african cichlids.

A typical biotope is for the Amazonian black water cichlid biotope which is recreated for Angelfish or Discus fish mainly and if set up properly can look stunning. These are heavily planted tanks with a sandy substrate that can be covered over with scattered oak leaves or similar to allow tannins to leach into the water, this gives the water a yellowy tinge and looks very realistic. The décor is usually bog wood that is scattered on the substrate or branches/roots that are positioned so that they rise up to the water surface making sure that they are secured into place. Suitable tank mates for the discus or angelfish are tetras, most species are to be found in the Amazonian River Basins and make great companions being so peaceful and both requiring the same dietary needs.

Another typical example of a freshwater natural aquarium is the standard set up for african rift lake cichlid biotope, normally based on Lake Malawi where the fish kept inhabit the rocky surfaces that climb up on the lake edges., I myself have just set one of these up and because I am using a 100 gallon tank there is nearly 200 kg of rock in the tank to create the rock edges, a lot of weight for the bottom tank glass but most of the larger tanks have really thick glass used designed to take these sort of pressures. Basically all that is needed in the Malawi set up is lots of rock to provide hiding places for the fish and sand for the substrate, authentically there should not be any plant life but the addition of some of the hardier species of plants such as Vallisneria or Java Ferns can also manage to blend in with the tank style even though it is not 100% accurate as a biotope but that is poetic licence for the aquarium owner.

What should also be taken into account when setting up a natural aquarium is not just the décor but the water parameters need to be correct for the fish that you are going to add to the aquarium. Black water fish species require soft, acidic water ( the pH should always be below 7.0), whereas species of fish from the Rift Lakes of Africa require very hard water, often the pH is as high as 8.5. The lighting of the aquarium needs to blend with the overall style of what you are trying to achieve, bright lighting may be required for some species of plants but not others, tanks where there are no plants at all often look more natural when the lighting is subdued and it also helps the fish to settle in quicker as well.


Generally if you wish to recreate a natural scene in your aquarium, research which substrates, plants, décor as in wood or rock and lighting blend together to create a whole picture that can be admired by anyone who happens to see your tank. If you spot anything in there that doesn’t look right then other people will, so have a good look at your handiwork before you decide that it is the way you planned it to look initially.

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